Dictionary of the Theatre (Dictionnaire du Theatre):
Terms, Concepts, & Analysis

by Patrice Pavis, Christine Shantz, Marvin Carlson,
672 pages,
ISBN: 0802081630

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Brief Reviews - Theatre
by Diana Kuprel

For the past twenty years, Patrice Pavis, author of such (now) standard theoretical works as Languages of the Stage and Voix et images de la scène, has gained the respect of theatre students, practitioners, and critics for his fine, erudite scholarship. With astute intellectual flexibility and rigour, he has always managed to mediate seamlessly, productively, and inspiringly between what might seem incompatible: the semiological and the hermeneutical; the theoretical and the practical; the ideological and the gestural. Recently, University of Toronto Press has made available in English translation one of his seminal works, Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis (469 pages, $80 cloth, $39.95 paper). No mere etymological review or alphabetical compilation of definitions, this offering is intentionally and smartly designed to help ever more sophisticated and demanding producers and audiences understand, articulate, and appreciate the complexities of the contemporary performance arts.

Based on Pavis' revised edition published in 1996, Dictionary of the Theatre bears the mark of its author's attunement to the historicity, temporality, and relativity of terms, as well as to the place of theatre within a broader intellectual and cultural context. Not only does it clarify, amend, and update critical notions and classical concepts while it sets up an intricate web of cross-references, but it also, crucially, "speaks of the innovations of the 1990s, of the cross-cultural, multimedia and interdisciplinary aspects of theatre today". As Pavis argues, those influences (e.g., television) "mean that we must rethink theories and their categories, and see Western dramaturgy... from the standpoint of an anthropology of performance practices" from all over the world.

The terms are grouped into eight categories in a thematic index: (1) dramaturgy (from act and diegesis to theatre studies and verisimilitude); (2) text and discourse (from ambiguity and dramatic proverb to stichomythia and utterance); (3) actor and character (from braggart to soubrette and übermarionette); (4) genres and forms (from antitheatre and body art to parody and women's theatre); (5) staging (from abstraction and installation to sound scenery); (6) structural principles and aesthetic questions (from Brechtian and edification to segmentation and theatre aesthetics); (7) reception of the performance (from applause to stage-audience relationship); (8) semiology (from actantial models to possible worlds and signifying systems). The French, German, and Spanish equivalents of the English terms are given, which is a great aid for theatre students who are required to be versed in several languages. Each entry begins with a general definition. This preliminary orientation is then complicated by a methodological discussion which cracks open a theoretical and aesthetic debate. There are helpful references throughout to creators, movements, and theatres, as well as directions to works listed in an impressive and indispensable bibliography where the reader may find a more in-depth treatment of a given topic.

These eight categories are designed to provide-and they succeed in providing-a "stable framework" within a field that is constantly undergoing transformations, re-evaluations, and convulsions in response to the never-ending current of creative impulses that are brought to bear on it. Pavis writes: "In these times of ideological uncertainty, as the humanist heritage is liquidated between two fire sales of concepts too soon shop-soiled, of hermeneutical gadgets and flashy postmodern devices, a process of historical and structural reflection seems ever more necessary to stave off the vertigo of theoretical relativism and aestheticism". The usefulness and relevance of Pavis' Dictionary of the Theatre are that it serves as just such an anchor while simultaneously recording the pulsations of change. 

Diana Kuprel


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